- - Wednesday, February 12, 2020

There are no shortcuts on the road to the White House. Navigating New Hampshire is especially challenging for presidential hopefuls — not surprising for a place where the adopted motto offers a stark choice: “Live free or die.” The Granite State’s Democratic primary returns Tuesday placed some of the party’s contenders at death’s door, others escaped to live another day and a couple emerged with the wind at their back to match the dreadful force of a coastal Nor’easter.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Brooklynite who long ago found a home for his socialist notions in neighboring Vermont, broke the tape in the nation’s first 2020 presidential primary, capturing 25.8 percent of the vote. With his primary victory, Mr. Sanders has earned the right to swagger, but not too much. Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg finished only a stride behind, with 24.4 percent.

Moving ahead, angry Democrats appear to face a choice between a far-left candidate who would force a clean break with the nation’s individual-liberty, free-market heritage and somewhat less radical one seeking an alternative to Donald Trump’s “America first” policies.

Joe Biden fell hard, like the Old Man of the Mountain, New Hampshire’s granite outcropping that decorated the White Mountains for eons before crumbling into the valley below. The state still mourns its iconic attraction while hardly taking notice of the former vice president, who led national polls until this month, but he barely cracked 8 percent of the vote.

Tripping over a tongue that somehow hurled “lying, dog-faced pony soldier” at a bewildered questioner, Mr. Biden fled for refuge in South Carolina even before his collapse in New Hampshire was tallied. In the meantime, his Palmetto State firewall has gone up on smoke since last week’s Iowa caucuses chaos, where Uncle Joe came in fourth, assuming the error-plagued and still-incomplete ballot count deserves a shred of credibility. His support among South Carolina blacks has skidded from 51 percent in December to 27 percent, according to a Quinnipiac poll, leaving little time for a turnaround before the Feb. 29 primary.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, riding a surge of support following a praiseworthy debate performance last week, finished a surprising third with nearly 20 percent. She sailed right by Sen. Elizabeth Warren from nearby Massachusetts, considered an odds-on favorite until making the mistake of putting “taxes” and “trillions” in the same sentence. Mrs. Warren saw her support melt like frost in New England’s February morning sun and wound up hardly breaking 9 percent.

Billionaire Tom Steyer and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard each came away with a bit north of 3 percent. Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang dropped out of the contest after garnering slightly south of 3 percent, and the virtually invisible Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick also went home.

Michael Bloomberg, the Johnny-come-lately candidate, did not appear on the New Hampshire ballot. Still, PredictIt, a market research website where individuals bet money on their favorite candidates, rates the former New York City mayor in second place nationwide behind Mr. Sanders.

Like a wolf circling a flock of sheep, President Trump descended on New Hampshire on the eve of the Democrats’ big day, rallying Republicans by the thousands in Manchester, the state’s largest city. A quarter of his audience, according to the Trump campaign, was composed of Democrats choosing the president’s entertainment over events featuring their party’s stars. None of the potential contenders draws crowds of similar size, raising a question Democrats would rather not contemplate: Can anyone go head-to-head with the Donald?

Clearly, no other Republican can. In its own New Hampshire primary, his party gave the president almost 86 percent of the vote. Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld and a few unknowns split the rest.

Success speaks for itself. Gallup reported last week that 90 percent of Americans surveyed say they’re satisfied with their personal life, the highest proportion since 1979. Taken with near-record unemployment and rapidly rising median-household income, Democrats face an uphill struggle to convince voters that Donald Trump’s America requires an overhaul that only a new president can accomplish.

Moreover, New Hampshire is no harbinger of what is to come. The state’s Democrats have wound up selecting a candidate who went on to the White House only once in the previous 12 tries. Though Bernie has the inside track, there is still a lane for challengers with the guts and money to keep competing.

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